Traveling between Egypt and Gaza should only be a matter of hours. Cairo is only some 200 miles from Rafah, the strip’s southernmost city.
Yet the siege imposed by Israel – with Egypt’s cooperation – more than a decade ago has turned that journey into an ordeal. The frequent closures at the Rafah crossing – the sole point of exit and entry for most people in Gaza – have been well documented. Less well known is that returning from Egypt can involve extremely long delays.
One recent trip from Cairo to Rafah took a full five days. For Mahmoud al-Madhoun, 28, the experience was “like being in hell.”
On 30 August, Mahmoud, accompanied his mother Afaf, 54, who was going back to Gaza by bus. She had been in Egypt to receive treatment for thyroid cancer.
Mahmoud and Afaf set out at dawn, joining a minibus. Their problems began at approximately 7 am when they reached al-Firdan Bridge near the city of Ismailia.
Located on the Suez Canal, the bridge has an important place in history as it enabled rapid transit between Africa and Asia. That seems ironic given how the bridge is being used today.
Following the 2013 coup under which Abdulfattah al-Sisi, a military general, took power in Cairo, the Egyptian authorities established a checkpoint at al-Firdan to inspect Palestinians leaving and entering Gaza.
There were 29 other passengers – all female – on the bus carrying Mahmoud and Afaf. Most had also been in Egypt for medical treatment.
The authorities displayed no concern regarding their plight. The passengers were left waiting at al-Firdan for three days without even the most basic of facilities.
Because there were no restrooms at the crossing, the passengers had to relieve themselves in nearby fields. “That was really humiliating,” said Mahmoud.
Although there was a large group of people from Gaza at the crossing, the only noticeable assistance they received from the Palestinian Authority’s diplomatic mission in Cairo was the provision of some water.
“We didn’t meet anyone from the embassy during our journey,” said Afaf. “We expected them to intervene to ease the procedures for us, especially at al-Firdan Bridge. But they did nothing.”
On the third day, one passenger fainted. The woman in question had received surgery for a cyst in her ear and needed to change the dressings on her wound regularly.
The woman was revived and given water to drink.
As the passengers grew increasingly frustrated, their driver suggested that they might be permitted to cross the checkpoint through bribing an Egyptian soldier.
Mahmoud collected around $200 from the passengers but the soldier offered the bribe initially refused it.
Some of the women pleaded with the soldier. One offered him a gold ring, in addition to the $200. The soldier then accepted the bribe.
The ring belonged to Nisreen al-Rayes, who was traveling with her sister. Nisreen’s sister had recently received treatment for a slipped disk in her back.
“If he asked for all the money I had, I would have said yes,” Nisreen said of the soldier. “I didn’t want to spend one more night in those conditions. My sister was in a lot of pain.”
An hour later, the bus and 30 other vehicles were allowed through the crossing.
Yet the passengers only went a short distance before they were brought to a building on the far side of the bridge.
Next they were instructed to leave the bus and form a line. The passengers were brought into a room, where their bags were searched.
“The soldiers inspected every single bag,” said Mahmoud al-Madhoun. “And when they finished inspecting each bag, they told me and the driver to close it and carry it back to the bus. For a moment, I felt like a prisoner sentenced to hard labor.”
The inspection process took around three hours. The driver was then able to drive the bus. But he had only gone 500 meters, when soldiers decided to check all the bags a second time.
The second inspection process differed from the first one. This time soldiers confiscated some of the passengers’ belongings.
Hania Zumlot, 54, was returning to Gaza after receiving treatment for osteoporosis.
“I had bought some gifts for my husband and sons,” she said. “An Egyptian soldier stole cigarettes, perfume and new shoes. I asked him to leave my stuff alone as I had nothing that was harmful or forbidden. But he shouted in my face, telling me to stop talking and threatening that he would make me turn back.”
Eventually, the bus was able to drive on. But passengers were subject to further checks during the remainder of the journey. In total, they had to go through 15 checkpoints.
Deal “around the corner?”
Reaching the Rafah crossing was by no means the end of the ordeal. The passengers had to wait 18 hours in the Egyptian-controlled hall at the crossing.
The hygiene in this hall is notoriously poor. Travelers have to pay to use the restrooms, which are seldom clean. Prices for food and drink in its cafeteria are around twice what people would normally pay in Gaza.
On the fifth and final day of their journey, an Egyptian officer handed the passengers their passports – which had been stamped. The passengers were then placed on a large bus that brought them into Gaza.
The ordeal recounted here took place amid speculation that the suffering of Palestinians will be eased. Ismail Haniyeh, a leading figure in Hamas, predicted in August that an end to Israel’s siege of Gaza was “around the corner.”
Egypt is reported to be facilitating talks aimed at introducing a truce between Hamas and Israel.
For all the speculation, a deal has yet to emerge. And any eventual agreement will not erase the cruelty inherent in the movement restrictions that the Cairo authorities have imposed on Palestinians until now.
Afaf al-Madhoun never imagined that traveling would be so horrendous.
“If I knew that my journey was going to be like this, I would prefer to have died in Gaza,” she said. “It was like we were killed 1,000 times on our way back.”
Hamza Abu Eltarabesh is a journalist from Gaza.